November is Lung Cancer Awareness month, and for good reason: lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death in the US. While lung cancer has multiple causes, about 85% of cases are associated with long-term tobacco smoking.
Here’s why lung cancer awareness is so vitally important: caught early, most cases of lung cancer can be treated with a high rate of effectiveness. When discovered before it produces symptoms like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, lung cancer can be conquered. The key is early discovery. Low-Dose Computed Tomography, or LDCT, is a quick, painless annual screening exam that can catch lung cancer early, before it has a chance to grow and spread. Once it migrates outside the lungs, lung cancer is very difficult, even impossible, to treat. That’s why annual testing is crucial to stopping lung cancer in its tracks.
What is LDCT?
LDCT is a specialized low-radiation CT scan of the chest that captures a series of images and sends them to a computer screen to create a nearly 3-dimensional composite that is capable of highlighting even the tiniest abnormalities. Getting tested is easy and involves far less ionizing radiation than a conventional diagnostic CT of the chest, so it is considered safe and suitable for most people. LDCT is so effective that the American Lung Association recommends annual LDCT screening for all high-risk patients.
Who is Considered “High Risk”?
LDCT is appropriate for current heavy smokers and former heavy smokers who quit within the past 15 years. A heavy smoker is someone who has reached 30 “pack years,” which is the number of years spent smoking times the number of packs smoked per day. For example: 1 pack a day x 30 years or 2 packs a day x 15 years = 30 pack years.
Another group considered at high risk are people ages 50 or older with a 20 “pack-year” history and at least one other risk factor, such as a personal or family history of lung disease. 1 pack a day x 20 years + asthma, or an immediate relative with lung disease, places someone in the high risk category.
Can’t I Just Get a Chest X-Ray?
Unlike a standard 2D chest x-ray, LDCT captures multiple images from different angles that are exceptionally detailed, revealing nodules in the lungs while they are tiny enough to be barely visible. A recent randomized clinical trial of 53,000+ current and former heavy smokers proved that LDCT is about 20% more effective at preventing death from lung cancer than x-ray. This translates to about 1 in 5 lives being saved by LDCT, making it a true lifesaver. If you’re the 1 patient in 5, you appreciate that superiority.
LDCT is quick, non-invasive, painless and simple. You simply lie still on a specialized table for a few minutes while the scanner passes over your chest. A contrast agent may be used to provide enhanced detail. Once the test is over, you’re free to get on with your day. Your referring clinician will contact you with the results.
Is LDCT Covered?
With a qualified clinician’s referral, patients ages 55-77 with a 30 “pack-year” history and a qualified clinician’s referral are eligible to have their scans 100% covered by Medicare. If you fall into a high risk category due to the addition of a personal or family history of respiratory disease, talk to your clinician about whether LDCT screening may be covered in your case.
If you’re at high risk for lung cancer, don’t wait. Contact your clinician and ask if annual LDCT screening at RAO’s Medical Imaging Center or TimberRidge Imaging Center might be what you need to keep you breathing easy.